When Jimmy Meng became the state assembly's first Chinese American member in 2004, many people credited ethnic appeal in an increasingly Asian district. Meng, suffering from chronic back pain, has decided against running for re-election. The ethnic politics of the Queens district will likely come into play again as three candidates vie for his seat.
Three candidates are running for the Democratic primary. Ellen Young, worked for Councilmember John Liu before stepping down to campaign. Julia Harrison, who held Liu's seat in the council before stepping down due to term limits. Terence Park, a district leader, and member of Community Board Seven, was removed from the ballot for a technicality but successfully appealed, reversing the decision. Young is Chinese, Harrison is white, and Park is Korean.
Meng's daughter, Grace Meng, also attempted to run for the seat, but was removed from the ballot after it was determined she did not live in the district. Young has raised about $250,000, and Terence Park has raised $219,000, while Harrison has raised $32,000. The primary winner will face Republican candidate Christopher Migliaccio in November.
Young and Harrison insist that race is not an issue in the campaign. But some frame the election as a contest between the old, mainly white Flushing represented by Harrison, and the changing, more racially diverse community represented by the Asian candidates. Fifty-one percent of the district's residents are Asian.
"It is very obvious and very honest to say that race is a factor â€¦ but real voters care for what your record is about," said Park.
Young is considered an immigrant advocate, and has served as the president of the Chinese American Voters Association, and has organized programs to help immigrants fill out Census forms. Harrison and Park, meanwhile, say immigration issues should be left to the federal government. Harrison has questioned the very practice of categorizing people as immigrants, and says that as long as they are citizens she would represent them like any other constituent.
Harrison's comments about immigrants have led to trouble in the past. In 1996 she was criticized for making derogatory comments about Asian Americans when she was quoted saying they "were more like colonizers than immigrants. The money came first. The paupers followed, smuggled in and bilked by their own kind." She maintains that her words were misconstrued.
Harrison has said the Democratic Club of Flushing, Whitestone and College Point asked her to run because it felt that the other Democratic candidates were running on personal and racial appeal, but lacked legitimate experience. Young maintains that her two-decade record of public service is more than adequate experience.
SIMILAR PHILOSOPHIES, DIFFERENT FOCUSES
Candidates have largely focused on relatively uncontroversial issues, such as an increased police force, more funding for schools, and better transportation. The candidates did, however, have different plans for how to best achieve common goals such as safer streets. Young, Park, and Harrison mentioned increased police presence to fight crime, while Migliaccio focused on stronger penalties to deter crime.
Park focuses on overdevelopment, saying that plans for downtown Flushing could bring "chaos to our community" if better planning for parking is not taken into consideration. He also worries that the character of the neighborhood is threatened by increasingly dense residential construction projects.
"There are too many developers invading our neighborhoods and knocking down houses to build multiple dwelling houses," he said.
In regard to education, the candidates agreed upon the need for increased funding for public schools and increased hours for after school programs. Migliaccio, however, differed from the Democratic candidates in emphasizing the need to give students the means to obtain education out of district, instead of limiting educational funds to improvements within the district.
Transportation was also a frequently mentioned issue. Migliaccio and Harrison emphasized the importance of extending the 7 subway line to reach farther into Queens. This would better connect various neighborhoods of Queens to one another, as well as giving residents of the farther bounds of the district better access to Manhattan.
One area of contention, however, has been that of health care. While Young and Harrison spoke of improving Medicare and Medicaid, Migliaccio disagreed. “I don’t think the state should be the primary provider,” he said. “That’s not our job.”
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